Siamese tragedy

Print edition : October 20, 2006

KING BHUMIBOL ADULYADEJ and Queen Sirikit with the coup leaders, (from left) Air Force chief Chalit Phukpasuk, Navy chief Admiral Satiraphan Kayanont and Army chief General Sonthi Boonyaratglin on September 19. - REUTERS

The coup in Thailand is the culmination of a slide caused by the political bankruptcy of civilian rule and accelerated by IMF prescriptions.

THE military coup in Thailand marked the second high-profile collapse of a democracy in the developing world in the past seven years. The first was the coup in Pakistan in October 1999, which brought General Pervez Musharraf to power. Like the coup in Thailand, that coup was popular with the middle class. As in Thailand, the military was expected to vacate power soon after it ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Six years later, Musharraf and the Army are still in power.

It is now claimed in some quarters that Thaksin Shinawatra undermined the democratic regime that came into being after the peoples' power uprising in May 1992. True, but Thai democracy was in bad shape before Thaksin came to power in January 2001.

The first Chuan Leek-Pai government from 1992 to 1995 was marked by the absence of even the slightest effort at social reform. The government of former provincial businessman Banharn Silipa-Archa, from 1995 to 1996, was described as "a semi-kleptocratic administration where coalition partners were paid to stay sweet, just like he used to buy public works contracts". Then followed, in 1996-97, the government of Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, a former General, which was based on an alliance among big business elites, provincial bosses and local godfathers. Relatively free elections were held, but they served mainly to determine which coalition of elites would have its turn at using the government as a mechanism of private capital accumulation.

Not surprisingly, the massive corruption, especially under Banharn and Chavalit, repelled the Bangkok middle class, and the urban and rural poor did not see the advent of democracy marking a change in their lives.

Democracy suffered a further blow during 1997-2001 following the Asian financial crisis. This time it was not the local elites that were the culprit. It was the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which pressured the Chavalit government and then the second Chuan government to adopt a very severe reform programme that consisted of cutting expenditures radically, decreeing many corporations bankrupt, liberalising foreign investment laws, and privatising state enterprises. The IMF assembled a $72 billion rescue fund, but it was money that was spent not to save the local economy but to enable the government to pay off the foreign creditors of the country. When the Chavalit government hesitated to adopt these measures, the IMF pressed for a change in government. The second Chuan government complied fully with the IMF, and for the next three years Thailand had a government that was accountable not to the people but to a foreign institution. Not surprisingly, the government lost much of its credibility as the country plunged into recession and one million Thais fell under the poverty line. Meanwhile the United States Trade Representative told the U.S. Congress that the Thai government's "commitments to restructure public enterprises and accelerate privatisation of certain key sectors - including energy, transportation, utilities, and communications - [are expected] to create new business opportunities for U.S. firms".

The IMF, in short, contributed greatly to sapping the legitimacy of Thailand's fledgling democracy, and, in this connection, this was not the only instance where the Fund contributed to eroding the credibility of a government, especially among the poor. If there is today a pattern of reversing the "Third Wave" of democratisation that took off as a trend in the developing world in the mid-1970s, the IMF - supported of course by the U.S. government - is part of the answer. An IMF programme requiring steep rises in transport costs destroyed the last ounce of legitimacy of Venezuela's democracy in 1989 and plunged the country into the spontaneous rising known as the "Caracazo".

Earlier, in 1987, the IMF forced the new, democratic Corazon Aquino government in the Philippines to adopt a national economic programme prioritising debt repayment over development, pushing the country into a period of stagnation, rising poverty and rising inequality which saw, among other things, the squandering of much of the legitimacy of the democracy that succeeded Ferdinand Marcos.

THAIS AND FOREIGN tourists with soldiers at the marble temple near Government House in Bangkok.-UDO WEITZ/BLOOMBERG NEWS

Also, a key contributor to the unravelling of Pakistan's democracy was the structural adjustment programmes that the IMF and the World Bank got the governments of both Benazir Bhutto and her rival Nawaz Sharif to impose on the country. Since parliamentary democracy became associated with economic stagnation and a rise in poverty, it is not surprising that the Musharraf coup was viewed with relief by most Pakistanis, from both the middle classes and the working masses.

It was a severely compromised democracy that Thaksin stepped into in 2001 after winning on an anti-IMF platform. In his first year in office, Thaksin inaugurated three heavy-spending programmes that contradicted the IMF's prescriptions: a moratorium on farmers' existing debt along with new credit for them, medical treatment for all at only 30 baht or less than a dollar an illness, and a one-million baht fund for every district to invest as it wanted. These policies did not bring on the inflationary crisis that the IMF and conservative local economists expected. Instead they buoyed the economy and cemented Thaksin's massive support among the rural and urban poor.

This was the "good" side of Thaksin Shinawatra. The problem was that, having secured the majority with these programmes and with practices that analysts Alec and Chanida Bamford called "neo-feudal patronage", he began to subvert freedom of the press, use control of government to add to his wealth or ease restrictions on his businesses and those of his cronies, buy allies, and buy off opponents. His war on drugs, using his favourite agency, the police, resulted in the loss of over 2,500 lives; this bothered human rights activists but the campaign was popular with the majority. He also assumed a hardline, purely punitive, policy towards the Muslim insurgency in three southern provinces. But again, despite the fact that it worsened the situation, this policy enjoyed the support of the country's Buddhist majority.

Thaksin appeared to have created the formula for a long stay in power, supported by an electoral majority, when he overreached. In January, his family sold its controlling stake in the telecommunications conglomerate Shin Corp. for $1.87 billion to a Singapore government front called Temasek Holdings. Before the sale, Thaksin had made sure Parliament would change the rules to exempt him from paying taxes. This brought the Bangkok middle class to the streets to demand his ouster in a movement that bore a striking resemblance to the "People Power Uprising" that overthrew Joseph Estrada in the Philippines in January 2001.

To resolve the polarisation, Thaksin dissolved Parliament and called for elections, knowing that he would win handsomely. The elections were held on April 2. Thaksin's coalition won 57 per cent of the vote, but they were boycotted by the Opposition leading to an Opposition-less Parliament. After a not-too-veiled suggestion by the revered King Bhumibol, the Supreme Court found the elections to be violative of the Constitution and ordered them to be held once more. Thaksin resigned as Prime Minister and said he would be a caretaker Prime Minister until after new elections were held.

It is useful to pause here and note certain dimensions of the Thai conflict: It pitted the urban and rural lower classes - the majority - against the middle classes, meaning mainly the Bangkok middle class. It pitted, as a principle of succession, representative democracy via elections against direct democracy of the streets.

It involved a split between the two principles that are united in the system of liberal democracy - liberalism and democracy. Invoking the legacy of liberalism, the people in the streets sought to remove Thaksin for his violation of human and civil rights and his arbitrary rule, while Thaksin's supporters sought to keep him in power by appealing to the basic principle of a democracy, that is, the rule of the majority. The anti-Thaksin forces, however, claimed that Thaksin's majority rule fit the phenomenon that John Stuart Mill described as the "tyranny of the majority".

It is critical to point out that prior to the coup, the country was not in gridlock. Certainly, it was far from descending into civil war. More important, the moral tide had turned against Thaksin, and his resignation was a recognition of this. He had lost control, criticism of him was widespread in the media which was once tame, and the pressure was on for him to resign before the next elections, originally scheduled for October 15 but rescheduled for November. The People's Alliance for Democracy had planned to stage a mass rally on Thursday, the day after the coup, to begin the final push against Thaksin from the streets.

This was democracy in action, with all its rough and tumble and the rambunctious efforts to resolve conflicting principles. Of course, the outcome was not guaranteed, but indeterminacy and prolonged resolution of disputes are risks that come with democracy. Thais were wrestling to resolve the question of political succession through democratic, civilian methods. The seeming chaos of it all was a part of the growing pains of a democracy. And it seemed as though "people power" or the democracy of the streets would successfully determine political succession, creating an important precedent in democratic practice. Direct democracy not only had relevance for the political succession; it was reinvigorating and renewing the democratic practice and the democratic spirit.

It was this vibrant democratic process that the military coup cut short. This move, everybody agrees, was unconstitutional, illegal, and undemocratic. Many say, however, that yes, it is all this, but it is popular and it is valid because it ended a crisis.

This is questionable. This coup may have temporarily ended the crisis but at the pain of provoking a much deeper one, for several reasons:

Thaksin's mass base, that is the poor and the underprivileged, will be deeply alienated from successor regimes, viewing these post-coup regimes as possessing little democratic legitimacy.

The military has reasserted its traditional self-defined role as the "arbiter" of Thai politics, and this coup had as much to do with reasserting this role, which had been defined as illegitimate over the past 14 years, as with the current political crisis.

There has emerged a dangerous informal institutional axis that would subvert future democratic arrangements between the military and the Royal Palace's Privy Council, one of the few national political institutions that have not been eliminated by military decree. This is, not surprisingly, given the fact that the Council is headed by a retired military strongman, Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda. Indeed, there is a strong suspicion that Gen. Prem had more than just a neutral role in the affair as he had days before the coup told the military that its loyalty was principally "to the nation and the King".

The one really popularly drawn-up Constitution, the 1997 Constitution, has been abolished by military fiat, and this was done deliberately, not out of naivete, because it placed many controls on the exercise of parliamentary and executive power and on the conduct of politicians and bureaucrats.

Some people say that the coup leader, Army chief Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, is sanguine about stepping aside. But personal predilections are no match for institutional interests. More than any other military in South-East Asia, the Thai military has had a propensity for intervening in the political process, having launched some 18 military coups since 1932. Thai military men have an ingrained institutional contempt for civilian politicians, regarding them as blundering fools. The Generals have often promised to return the country to civilian rule after a coup but proceeded to rule directly or indirectly through military-appointed civilians. Gen. Sondhi's words must be taken with the same scepticism as his assurance days before the takeover that military coups "were a thing of the past".

Already, the Generals have drafted an interim Constitution that makes them "advisers" to an interim civilian government. Most civilian Prime Ministers appointed by the military have been weak politicians whose tenures were marked by responsiveness to their military overseers.

Anand Panyarachun, who was appointed Prime Minister after a military coup in 1991, was a notable exception in this regard. The man that is said to be the leading candidate for the post of interim Prime Minister before elections are held in October 2007, Supachai Panitchpakdi is most likely to fit the mould of a pliable tool rather than an independent leader like Anand. He was seen as a weak Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and one who was overly responsive to the developed country agenda rather than to the interests of developing countries. More directly relevant is the fact that he was Deputy Premier in the Second Chuan government of 1997-1998, which followed to a "T" the IMF programme that proved devastating for the country. He is not one to stand up to the military and other power centres in the country.

Even before Thaksin, Thai democracy was in a severe crisis owing to a succession of elected but do-nothing or exceedingly corrupt regimes since 1992. Its legitimacy was eroded even further by the IMF, which for all intents and purposes ran the country, with no accountability, for four years, from 1997 to 2001, and imposed a programme that brought great hardship to the majority. Thaksin stoked this disaffection with the IMF and the political system to create a majority coalition that allowed him to violate constitutional constraints and infringe on democratic freedoms, while enabling him to use the state as a mechanism of private capital accumulation in an unparalleled fashion. This led to the middle-class-based, politically diverse Opposition that sought to oust him by relying not on electoral democracy but on "people power", the democracy of the street.

The tide turned against Thaksin, and in the past few months, he not only lost moral legitimacy but a great deal of political power. Thai politics was not gridlocked, and the democracy movement was about to launch the final phase to drive Thaksin out when the military intervened. Though it is now popular among Bangkokians, the coup will eventually prove to be a cure worse than the disease.

As a final point, the Thai coup represents a larger trend, a deep crisis of legitimacy among elite democracies that came into being in the 1980s and 1990s as part of what Samuel Huntington called the "Third Wave of Democratisation". It may not be the last. Is there now a reverse wave leading democracies back to authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes?

Walden Bello is Professor of Sociology at the University of the Philippines (Diliman) and author of A Siamese Tragedy: Development and Disintegration in Modern Thailand (Zed, London, 1998).

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